John William Gillis, a resident of Healdsburg, California, passed away on May 28th, ten days short of his 90th birthday. He is survived by his partner, Gretchen McKay, his half-siblings Richard (Dick) Gillis and Dorothy Brenton, his son Bruce Gillis, and four grandchildren: Charles (Wesley) Morris, Claire Gillis, John (Tyler) Gay, and Katherine Gillis. John also had a daughter, Susan Randle Gillis, who predeceased him. John was born and grew to adulthood in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Like many of his generation in the Midwestern states, his heritage and life traced the history of America from immigrant farmer to urban professional. All of his grandparents were family farmers.
His parents gained college education and moved to Champaign-Urbana, where his father was a plant geneticist at the University of Illinois. John walked down the street to earn a BA in Medieval History at the U of I, then completed a PhD in Psychology (Measurement) at Purdue University. This led to a career in higher education as a professor and administrator. John’s professional path took him first to a deanship at Illinois State University, then to a role in higher education research and program management at the Association of American Colleges (Washington, DC). He then served as academic provost at Chapman College (Orange, CA) before finishing his career as director of testing and counseling services at California State University Fullerton.
In retirement, John found his way to Healdsburg, California, where he lived happily for the last 25 years of his life. The community’s agricultural foundation and sophisticated population felt like home to the man raised in a university town in the middle of “corn-and- bean” country. John’s being was forged as a youth growing up during the Great Depression and Second World War and spending summers at Boy Scout camps and family farms. He could repair or build most anything and enjoyed many home-based hobbies that utilized these talents. He collected stamps, coins and potentially useful articles of metal, glass, wire and string – activities common to his peers but both foreign and baffling to his grandchildren. He enjoyed gardening, photography, music and reading, and could identify dozens of birds by sight or by their call.
John received his greatest joy, though, from European travel. He was always a student of medieval history. He rarely passed a town, church, monastery or castle without stopping to learn about the history of its human inhabitants, art and architecture. He had a scholar’s ability to appreciate the glorious achievements of human energy during medieval and Renaissance periods, while simultaneously understanding the inequity and immense suffering of people at the hands of the institutions that produced those structures and works of art.
People will likely remember John for his ready smile, his sense of humor, his energy and his impressive base of knowledge. He was not outgoing, but was always a ready, warm and enthusiastic host. And few spent time with him without learning something.